Poker chips are what you try to win in a game of poker: you and your opponent(s) each have a certain number of them, you bet them, and whoever has the best hand (or, whoever can get the others to fold) wins the chips. In traditional gambling games, chips stand in for actual money--but even if there is no real money at stake, players try to win chips from one another.
Why use chips instead of money? For one, it's easier to make change (one $20 bill can be turned into twenty $1 chips); for another, it's easier to count each other's stacks; and third, they just look cool and are fun to play with!
Chips are usually made from plastic or clay, or a combination of both. Plastic chips are a little cheaper: light and slippery, but they can be hard to stack. Clay (or, usually clay chips with plastic middles) are heavier, but stack a little better.
Every casino or home game is a little bit different, but in general, chip denominations are:
Sure, there are higher ones--but if you see those, always make sure you know their value!
You can combine chips to make calls and bets. For instance, if you want to bet $10, you can bet ten $1 chips, two $5 chips, or one $5 and five $1's.
One reason to use chips is because they can be stacked, making it easy to count, keep track of your chips, and make bets. There are a few do's and don'ts when handling chips:
Always be aware of how you handle your chips, not just to avoid mistakes--but because you might have a tell! Fiddling with your chips might mean your anxious and want to win, whereas clutching your chips tight might mean you're scared. Be aware of how you handle your chips--and be aware of how your opponents handle theirs.
Inevitably, you'll end up having to make a bet or call without the right denominations, but don't worry: simply state the amount you're betting or calling, place some chips in the pot, and make change. In home games, you might be able to make your own change by taking chips out of the pot yourself, or you might let a dealer do it for you. Casinos might let you make change in small situations, but when pots get big, the dealer will do it for you.
Remember, verbal bets are binding, so when in doubt, say out loud what you intend to do, and no one can accuse you of string-betting or misleading them.
Many players do chip tricks at the table, just to show they are used to being at the table. Some might roll chips from one hand to another, and others might twirl a chip in their fingers. But far and away the most popular trick is riffling: putting two stacks next to each other, wrapping your fingers around them, and pulling up, so the stacks riffle into one. This is a popular trick because it's relatively easy, and fun to do. But it can also become a nervous tic, and even a tell for other players.